Don’t look now, but the St. Louis Cardinals are alive and well in the National League Central.
X-Chicago Cubs 101-61
Life is good right now for the Chicago Cubs as they are set to embark on the 2017 Major League Baseball season. The Cubs are fresh off of winning their first World Series Championship since 1908, and the bad news for the rest of the National League is they might not be slowing down anytime soon.
The Cubs won the World Series with a solid blend of youngsters and veteran players as this team was skillfully crafted by their president of baseball operations in Theo Epstein. Epstein began the process of building the Cubs at the conclusion of the 2011 Major League Baseball season as he inherited a team that was one of the league’s bottom feeders. And in less than five years Epstein was able to lead the Cubs to World Series glory.
The Cubs possess arguably the best infield combination that Major League Baseball has seen since the 1970’s when the Los Angeles Dodgers had Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey, or the Cincinnati Reds of that same era with Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. And heading into a new season, this unit will once again be the fuel of the Cubs engine.
It hasn’t taken third baseman Kris Bryant that long to establish himself as one of the game’s top players as in just two seasons, he has already been named as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2015, while he took home N.L. MVP honors last year. Bryant is only 25-years of age and already he has become a household name as he batted .292 with 29 home runs and 102 runs batted in. Bryant’s swing is extremely effortless as he can carry the Cubs lineup for weeks at a time. And if Bryant were to somehow slip, he can lean on Rizzo right behind him in the Cubs lineup.
Like Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo batted .292 while he launched 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs. Together Rizzo and Bryant give the Cubs two of the best power bats in the National League, while giving the fans on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues plenty to cheer about.
Russell was able to hit 21 home runs last season, but he must improve his batting average which was only at .238 last season, while he also needs to cut down on the errors at shortstop where he committed 14.
Second baseman Ben Zobrist is in the midst of his second tour of duty under manager Joe Maddon as these two helped the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist brings a good presence to a locker room, and more importantly he knows how to win. In 2015, Zobrist was traded by the Oakland Athletics to the Kansas City Royals and he was vital in their winning the World Series. Zobrist would then become an unrestricted free agent and as he signed with Cubs, he batted .357 in the Fall Classic which led to him being the World Series MVP. And even though that Zobrist will be 36-years of age in May, expect him to once again have a solid impact on this Cubs team.
The Cubs lost outfielder Dexter Fowler in free agency as he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, but they won’t skip a beat as they brought outfielder Jon Jay on board. Jay knows a thing or two about winning as he helped the Cardinals win the World Series Title in 2011, and he fits into that mode of those scrappy players that are willing to do anything to win which is something that every championship team needs.
Outfielder Jason Heyward needs to put his disappointing 2016 campaign behind him as he was only able to bat .230 with 7 homers and 49 runs batted in after signing a huge contract in free agency. The last two years have seen Kyle Schwarber be a man without a position as the Cubs haven’t committed to him as a catcher, while they’ve stuck him in left field. Schwarber has been like a deer in the headlights in the outfield, but as he plenty of pop in his bat, Maddon must find a place for him in this lineup.
The Cubs starting rotation is an embarrassment of riches as each starter has the potential to win at least 15 games. For the second time in the Major League Baseball career of starting pitcher Jon Lester, he won 19 games, and as he has a potent lineup to work with, he’ll still be one of the better pitchers in the National League. The last two years have seen starting pitcher Jake Arrieta combine to win 40 games. And with Arrieta scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season, he should be locked in on the mound. The win total of starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks has increased in each of his three MLB seasons, and the sky is the limit for him after he won 16 games last year which included him leading the N.L. in earned run average at 2.13. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel has been a journeyman in MLB, but he’s coming off of his first 15-win campaign, while veteran starting John Lackey rounds out a staff that’ll it be tough to get wins against.
As a unit the Cubs led the National League in team earned run average at 3.15 last season and their bullpen will once again be difficult to deal with. Relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman came up big for the Cubs in their run to the World Series Championship. But when Chapman hit free agency and his asking price was too high for Chicago, Epstein got creative as he traded outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for relief pitcher Wade Davis.
Davis is another former Rays player who was under Maddon, and after arms issues took away his usefulness as a starter, he has been valuable in the bullpen. Davis was lights out for the Royals in their run to the World Series Championship in 2015, and he gives Maddon a very reliable arm to close out games.
The Cubs should expect to get every team’s best punch this season due to the fact that they are the defending champs. And unless the Cubs have themselves a World Series hangover, expect this team to be right back in the hunt to go all the way.
St. Louis Cardinals 87-75
Make no mistake about it that the St. Louis Cardinals are one of Major League Baseball’s most consistent teams. Since 2000, the Cardinals have reached the postseason 12 times, while they have a pair of World Series Championships to their credit during this span. But the Cards will enter the 2017 Major League Baseball in an unfamiliar spot as they missed the postseason for the first time since 2010, however they can take solace in knowing that the last time this happened, they would win it all in the following season.
Mike Matheny is set to begin his sixth year as the manager of the Cardinals and he’s never had a losing record. For 13 years Matheny was a Major League Baseball catcher which included a five-year stint with the Cards. And that knowledge of the game has helped Matheny have success in St. Louis. What has also helped Matheny is that he can rely on one of the best catchers in MLB to lead the Cardinals pitching staff.
The last 13 Major League Baseball seasons have seen catcher Yadier Molina control things behind the plate for St. Louis. Molina is one of the best in the business as far as calling a game for the Cardinals pitching staff, while his defensive skills are second to none. Molina has been known to throw out runners who are attempting to steal on him from his knees, while he can catch players napping at first base. Molina is a lifetime .285 hitter that always tends to get the clutch hit, and the age of 34 with him set to crack the Cardinals top 20 list for all-time wins above replacement as he’s currently at 33, it’s time to give him serious consideration to one day be enshrined into Cooperstown.
Molina’s ability to call a game will come in handy for a Cardinals pitching staff that is seeking to get back on track. Last year the Cards team earned run average of 4.08 was seventh in the National League which was a drop from where this staff has typically been in recent years.
In the off-season Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed starting pitcher Carlos Martinez to a five-year extension that is worth $51 million. Martinez is coming off of a 16-win campaign and he can be the future of the Cards rotation if he learns how to consistently bring it every fifth day. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright might no longer be looked at as a National League Cy Young Award candidate, but even the age of 35, he is still a quality hurler that is capable of winning 15 games. And although that there are question marks surrounding both Martinez and Wainwright, there are even bigger ones in regards to starting pitchers Mike Leake and Michael Wacha who have been up and down just like the stock market.
Last year would see relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal lose his status as the Cardinals closer to Seung-hwan Oh. After saving 19 games and posting an earned run average of 1.92, Oh should once again be the incumbent to get the baseball from Matheny heading into the ninth inning. But if Rosenthal is able to regain the magic that saw him combine to save 93 games in 2014 and 2015, it will add depth to the bullpen in St. Louis.
Offensively the Cardinals finished third in runs scored in the National League with 779. The injury bug really got the best of St. Louis in 2016 as only two everyday players were able to appear in at least 135 games which means that there is some optimism around this squad if they can remain healthy.
After languishing with the San Diego Padres for three years, second baseman Jedd Gyorko appears to have found a home in St. Louis. Gyorko led the Cards in home runs last season with 30 which was also a career-high for him as he appears to be another player who has bought into the “Cardinal Way”. Three of the last four years have seen infielder Matt Carpenter be an All-Star as he is one of the scrappiest players in baseball. There’s absolutely nothing that stands out about Carpenter’s ability, but he is one of Major League Baseball’s hardest workers which has allowed him to become a cornerstone in St. Louis.
Outfielder Randal Grichuk has worked his way up through the Cardinals system and after his 24 homers last year, he could be in the mix to be an All-Star in 2017. Outfielder Stephen Piscotty was the Cardinals first round choice in 2012 and he is beginning to come into his own as he hit 22 home runs, while batting .273, and driving in 85 runs last season. And just like Grichuk, Piscotty could flirt with being an All-Star this year as both players, along with the newest Cardinal in Dexter Fowler give St. Louis plenty of range in the outfield defensively.
After the Cards missed out on the playoffs last year, I expect this organization to put forth the effort to get back to the postseason while pushing the Cubs in the National League Central.
Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78
From 2013-2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a level of success that they had been denied for a very long time. The Pirates enjoyed winning baseball for the first time since the early 1990’s which also saw them postseason bound. But 2016 would be a different story in Pittsburgh as the Pirates took a step back as they limped to the finish line with a record of 78-83.
A big reason for the Pirates struggles last season was that center fielder Andrew McCutchen had a down year. McCutchen batted a career-low .256 which is a far cry from a player who won the National League MVP Award in 2013. This off-season has seen the Pirates front office flirt with the notion of trading McCutchen which has yet to happen. But where there is smoke, there is also fire, and I do believe that McCutchen’s time with the Pirates in winding down. However if things are able to be smoothed over between McCutchen and the Pirates, this outfield has the makings of one of the better units in the N.L.
Outfielder Gregor Polanco continues to emerge as a solid contributor after he hit a career-high 22 homers last season for the Pirates. Polanco also continues to flash the leather in the outfield, and if he’s able to get his batting average up, he should be able to increase his impact for the Bucs. Outfielder Starling Marte’s power numbers may have dipped last season, but he has become more of a consistent hitter at the plate with a batting average of .311, along with an on-base percentage of .362. And if Polanco is able to have a good balance this season between his power and consistency at the plate, the Pirates will be in business.
The Pirates pitching staff also needs to rebound after a down 2016. The Pirates team earned run average of 4.21 was ninth in the National League as they were ravaged by injuries.
No Pirates starter was able to make at least 22 starts last season and led by starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, this aspect must change if the Bucs want to flirt with getting a playoff berth. Cole won 19 games in 2015 and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. But Cole was never able to recover from going over the 200-inning plateau in 2015 for the first time his career as this will be something that Pittsburgh must monitor this season.
Along with Cole, there are nothing but question marks on the Pirates pitching staff which has the look of being held together by spit and glue.
With the National League Central expected to be a battle between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it will be hard for the Pirates to not get lost in the shuffle within the division.
Milwaukee Brewers 70-92
With the recent success in the National League Central of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers have become a forgotten franchise. The Brewers have failed to make the postseason since 2011 as they are a middle of the pack team. The Brewers currently find themselves in a rebuilding process while they also have some aging players on their roster which doesn’t leave that much room for optimism heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season.
After taking over midway through the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Craig Counsell is set to begin his second full season as Brewers manager. The Brewers embody the kind of player that Counsell was during 15-year MLB playing career as they are a scrappy bunch that doesn’t mind being the underdogs. But does Milwaukee have a legitimate shot to be a postseason team in 2017?
As Brewers general manager David Stearns has spent the last year trading away most of the quality players, the 2017 team in Milwaukee will be unrecognizable to the casual baseball fan.
Utility man Chris Carter led the National League in home runs last year 41. However the Brewers elected to not bring him back as he joined the New York Yankees which leaves a hole in their lineup. The Brewers still have outfielder Ryan Braun who in spite of the fact that he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs earlier his career, is still one of the better players in the National League. At the age of 32, Braun was able to bat .305 last season, while hitting 30 homers. I was shocked to see that the Brewers have yet to trade Braun as he could be very beneficial to a contender. But in the interim Braun gives Milwaukee a solid veteran in the middle of their lineup as they look to stay afloat.
One building block that the Brewers do have for the future is infielder Jonathan Villar. After being acquired from the Houston Astros, Villar was able to lead the National League in stolen bases last year with 62 as the Brewers appear to have themselves a table setter going forward.
The Brewers pitching staff only managed to get 62 quality starts last season which was 13th in the National League and there isn’t much optimism heading into the new campaign. No Brewers pitcher last season was able to throw at least 200 innings which included starting pitcher Zach Davies who led this staff with just 11 wins. And as the Brewers don’t have a prototypical ace to rely on, it will be difficult for this team to be a contender.
More than likely the Brewers won’t be a playoff team in 2017, but they will be scrappy.
Cincinnati Reds 65-97
It’s no secret that the Cincinnati Reds are in rebuilding mode as the last few years have seen them become an afterthought in the National League Central. The Reds are coming off of consecutive 90-loss seasons for the first time since 1934 and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for the current baseball futility in Southern Ohio. Manager Bryan Price is set to begin his third season as Reds manager and as he has spent the last two years on the hot seat, he could become the scapegoat if Cincinnati is unable to get it turned around.
Two of the bright spots on the Reds roster for the upcoming season are outfielder Adam Duvall and first baseman Joey Votto. Last year saw Duvall become an overnight sensation as he batted .297 with 33 home runs 103 runs batted in which led to his first All-Star Game appearance. This was Duvall’s first opportunity to become an everyday player and now it is time to see if he is ready to turn the corner and put these numbers up consistently. During the past ten years Votto has gone about his business and been the face of the franchise for the Reds as his offensive numbers put him in the mix with some of the greats who have played for this franchise. After a down 2014, Votto has once again found his groove at the plate as the former National League MVP is one of the best all-around hitters in baseball.
But as the Reds are rebuilding, it will be interesting to see how much longer that Votto will be in Cincinnati. Votto is still owed nearly $200 million on his contract which runs through 2024 and at some point you have to expect Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams to move his All-Star to a contender which would be beneficial to all parties involved.
After appearing in 159 games last season, third baseman Eugenio Suarez could be ready to become a breakout player in Cincinnati. Like Duvall, Suarez has finally gotten a consistent chance to show what he can do and he could be one of the centerpieces of the Reds rebuild. Suarez is only 25-years of age and after hitting a career-high 21 homers last season, opponents have to pay more attention to him.
But as the Reds lineup could be fun to watch, their pitching staff will once again have some questions. Last season the Reds were 14th in the National League in team earned run average (4.91), and 10th in quality stars with 67.
Starting pitcher Dan Straily led the Reds in victories last season with 14, but he was traded to the Miami Marlins in January. Starting pitcher Brandon Finnegan emerged on the Major League Baseball scene in the 2014 playoffs when he helped the Kansas City Royals win the American League Pennant. But after Finnegan was traded to the Reds, his role has been shifted to that of a starter. Finnegan does have an electric fastball, and if he is able to reach the 200-inning mark this season, there is a possibility that he could also strike out 200 batters.
As the Reds more than likely will fall short of making the postseason here in 2017, I doubt that Price will be able to save his job. However the problems in Cincinnati are bigger than Price as this organization has become a train wreck.
X-Chicago Cubs 95-67 (1)
2015 was a magical year for the Chicago Cubs as they became the talk of Major League Baseball. Under the watch of manager Joe Maddon, the young Cubs exceeded many expectations as they won 97 games in the regular season while they also won their first playoff series since 2003. But in the National League Championship Series, the power bats of the Cubs were shut down by the dominant starting pitching of the New York Mets. And although that the Cubs are still one of the younger teams in MLB, they feel that that they have everything in place to win the World Series for the first time since 1908.
Last season the Cubs had one of the top power lineups in the National League as they were fifth in home runs with 171 and the long ball will once again be en vogue for the North Siders. Aside from being the starting corner infielders for the Cubs, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant have become the cornerstones of this lineup. Last season Rizzo and Bryant combined to hit 57 home runs with Bryant being named as the NL Rookie of the Year. Bryant did this in spite of missing the first few weeks of the 2015 Major League Baseball season as the Cubs held him back in the minors, but this combination gives Chicago one of the best three-four tandems in baseball. And what makes it even scarier is that Rizzo is only 26-years of age while Bryant is just 23.
Aside from Bryant and Rizzo, the Cubs have more young talent in their lineup with the likes of second baseman Addison Russell and catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber is a catcher by trade, but his power bat made it tough for Maddon to take him out of the lineup as he hit 16 home runs in just 69 games. With Miguel Montero and David Ross splitting time at catcher for the Cubs, Schwarber was put in left field which was a train wreck for the Cubs as he was new to the position and he quickly became a defensive liability which really showed up when they lost to the Mets in the National League Championship Series. This season however, you can expect to see Schwarber start games for the Cubs, but he will definitely be pulled in favor of a better defender in late-inning situations.
But the already potent Cubs lineup added some pop this off-season with the addition of second baseman Ben Zobrist and outfielder Jason Heyward. After helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last October, Zobrist joined the Cubs as a free agent when both parties agreed on a four-year, $56 million deal in December. Zobrist is an Illinois native while he played under Maddon with the Tampa Bay Rays which included the franchise’s only American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist will primarily be used at second base, but he is utility player that can play all three outfield positions along with most positions on the infield. At the plate Zobrist is a contact hitter that has a career on-base percentage of .355 while he his also one of the toughest players to strike out in baseball.
The rich got richer when the Cubs were able to lure Heyward to the Windy City. Heyward spent the first five years of his Major League Baseball career with the Atlanta Braves where he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. Last year Heyward was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and he appeared to fit in there. But even though that the Cardinals offered Heyward more money in free agency, he decided to join the Cubs which should add more fuel to one of the oldest MLB rivalries. What Heyward gives the Cubs is a solid defender in right field as he is a three-time NL Gold Glove winner while he provides even more depth in their lineup.
As good as the Cubs lineup can be, their starting pitching staff isn’t that shabby either. Last year Cubs team earned run average of 3.36 was third in the National League as they were led by starting pitcher Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had a breakout season in 2015 as he won 22 games to become the first Cubs pitcher since Greg Maddux in 1992 to be named as the National League Cy Young Award winner. Over the second half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Arrieta was unhittable as he finished the year with an earned run average of 1.77 and you just have to wonder if he’ll be able to do it again. Behind Arrieta, the Cubs have veteran starting pitchers in John Lackey and Jon Lester as their postseason experience should pay dividends for the North Siders in crucial situations.
The Cubs will begin the 2016 Major League Baseball season on the West Coast with a three-game set against the Los Angeles Angels which will be followed by a four-game trip to the desert where they’ll face the Arizona Diamondbacks. And even in the Cubs don’t get off to a fast start, this is a team that has been constructed by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer that has the look of a contender for a very long time.
Y-Pittsburgh Pirates 89-73 (4)
The last three Major League Baseball seasons have seen the Pittsburgh Pirates be one of the better teams in the league, but success in the postseason has eluded them. The Pirates have been unable to win the National League Central as they’ve been unable to get over the hump in the division that is the St. Louis Cardinals. And now the Bucs find themselves sandwiched in the NL Central between the veteran Cardinals and the upstart Chicago Cubs, which has led to them getting overlooked somewhat in Western Pennsylvania. The Pirates are coming off of their best regular season since 1991 as they won 98 games, but they couldn’t win the NL Central due to the fact that the Cards won 100 games. The Pirates then hosted the NL Wild Card Game which they lost for a second consecutive year as it was the Cubs that ended their season. And as the 2016 MLB season is right around the corner, you can expect the Pirates to have a bad taste in their mouths.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle can be viewed as miracle worker as he has changed the culture in Pittsburgh during his five years there. Prior to Hurdle’s arrival in 2011, the Pirates had not had a winning season since 1992. But now the Pirates are a team that expects to contend for the World Series every year which can also be attributed to the fact that team general manager Neal Huntington has done a good job in giving Hurdle the talent on the field that can produce a winner.
Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen got off to a slow start in 2015 which also hurt Pittsburgh in the standings, but he still rallied to bat .296 with 23 home runs and 96 runs batted in. McCutchen is a former National League MVP and you can expect him to once again be in the conversation for the award in 2016. In seven years with the Pirates, McCutchen has undoubtedly become the face of the franchise. McCutchen is currently 14th on the Pirates all-time WAR list at 38, and a solid campaign in 2016 could see him surpass legends such as Ralph Kiner in the category.
Aside from McCutchen, the Pirates have some young talent in their outfield in Gregor Polanco and Starling Marte. Marte is coming off of winning a Gold Glove Award for the first time in his career and he could be a player that might flirt with being an All-Star this year. Like Marte, Polanco is a solid defender, but he is a player that must develop more plate discipline as he struck out 121 times last year.
The Pirates felt that they were not going to be able to sign second baseman Neil Walker to a long-term deal and thus they traded him over the winter to the New York Mets in exchange for starting pitcher Jon Niese. Walker was a solid all-around player for the Pirates, but the team was ready to move on as they have faith in their middle infielders consisting of Sean Rodriguez, Jung-ho Kang, and Jordy Mercer to get the job done up the middle.
The Pirates enjoyed the second best team earned run average in the National League and they’ll need more of the same in 2016 if they expect to be a contender. Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole is set to embark on his fourth Major League Baseball season and he’s showing all of the promise the made him the first overall pick of the draft in 2011. Cole is coming off a 19-win season and he has given Pittsburgh a bona fide ace for the first time since the days of Doug Drabek. Behind Cole in the Pirates starting rotation, there will be a veteran presence with Francisco Liriano, Ryan Vogelson, and Niese while relief pitcher Mark Melancon is looking to follow up his stellar 2015 campaign as he set a single-season franchise record in saves with 51.
The Pirates will begin the 2016 Major League Baseball season against their nemesis in the Cardinals. And if Pittsburgh is able to handle their business against the Cards, it could set the tone for them for the entire campaign.
Y-St. Louis Cardinals 88-74 (5)
In 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games, but when the postseason rolled around, they didn’t have the feel of a dominant team as the injuries that they were able to overcome in the regular season finally caught up to them in playoffs where they lost to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Divisional Series. And whereas the NL Central could once again be the toughest division in Major League Baseball in 2016, the Cardinals don’t want to get lost in the shuffle behind the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Since 2000, the Cardinals have only had one losing season and over that stretch they’ve won a pair of World Series Championships. One player that has been with the Cards for a good portion of that success has been catcher Yadier Molina. Molina has been the Cardinals starting catcher since 2004 and he’s developed into one of the best catchers in Major League Baseball as he is a defensive wizard behind the plate while also making the lives of his starting pitchers easier due to his ability to call games. But late in the 2015 MLB season, Molina suffered a thumb injury late in the regular season that limited his effectiveness along with hindering the chances for St. Louis to be successful in the postseason. Molina has undergone several thumb procedures which could see him miss the start of the 2016 MLB season as he recovers. And if Molina isn’t ready to go at the start of the season, it will put the Cardinals in a bind.
Last off-season, the Cardinals acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves in hopes that he would fit right into their lineup. Heyward was able to do that as he led the team in batting average (.293), and hits (160). The Cards knew the risk that they were running in acquiring Heyward due to the fact that he was set to become an unrestricted free agent last October. And after one season with the Cardinals, Heyward bolted in free agency to sign with Cubs.
Individually, the Cardinals lineup might not be that attractive to the casual fan, but as a team they are one of the most cohesive units in baseball which is due to their never say die attitude. Led by infielders Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Jhonny Peralta, the Cardinals have a team that is full of clutch hitters. And even though that the Cards might not possess one of the top offenses in baseball, you can never count them out until the final out is made.
The same can be said for the Cardinals pitching staff that is full of professionals in starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn. Wainwright missed the majority of 2015 after he ruptured his Achilles tendon, and even at the age of 34, he is player that you never want to count out as he displays nothing but grit every time that he takes the mound. Also returning to the Cardinals rotation after an injury is starting pitcher Carlos Martinez. Last year was Martinez’s first season as a starter and he was cruising until a shoulder injury in September abruptly put him on the shelf. But being that Martinez didn’t require any off-season surgery, St. Louis is hopeful that the youngster will be ready to bounce back. In Wainwright’s absence last year, Wacha emerged as the new ace in St. Louis as he led the club in wins with 17. However in three years with the Cardinals, Wacha has yet to throw 200 innings in a season and you have to wonder if the youngster will run out of gas during the stretch run. After losing starting pitcher Jon Lackey in free agency to the Cubs, the Cards were able to sign starting pitcher Mike Leake. The Cardinals are very familiar with Leake due to his time with the Cincinnati Reds and he should become a solid contributor in St. Louis at the back of the rotation.Last season relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal saved 48 games for St. Louis which was second in the National League and you can expect Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to once again rely on his rubber arm.
The Cardinals might lack star appeal in 2016, but as always this is a team that you never want to count out.
Cincinnati Reds 65-97
After qualifying for the postseason three times from 2010-2013, the Cincinnati Reds have fallen on hard times and they are now in full rebuilding mode. The Reds are coming off of their worst season since 1937 and they appear to have already waived the white flag for 2016. This off-season has seen the Reds trade All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox and All-Star relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees. And to makes matters worse is that the Reds parted with both players while not getting any quality players back in return which doesn’t leave that much optimism for the folks in Southern Ohio.
There are some people around that wanted to see the Reds part with manager Bryan Price as well, but to his credit he has been dealt a very tough hand as in his two years with Cincinnati, the team has been hit hard with injuries. And now Price will be tasked with turning water into wine for the Reds in 2016.
For the Reds they still have first baseman Joey Votto in the middle of their lineup. Votto is a former National League MVP, and along with having a career on-base percentage of .423, he is a professional hitter. But at this rate I doubt that Votto will finish the year in Reds uniform as a contender could be willing to take him and his contract off of Cincinnati’s hands.
Along with Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips is a player that does give the Reds the presence of a veteran in their lineup, but as Cincinnati appears to be in the midst of a fire sale, I doubt that he will be with the club by the August 1, trade deadline.
Last year saw the Reds have one of the worst pitching staffs in the National League and that could once again be the case this year as Anthony DeScalfani is the only starting pitcher returning to the team that won at least 9 games in 2015 as the Cincinnati bullpen will be busy this season.
With the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals expected to run things in the National League Central this year, the Reds could get lost in the shuffle rather quickly. And by season’s end, Cincinnati could have the look of a glorified minor-league team.
Milwaukee Brewers 62-100
2015 wasn’t a good one for the Milwaukee Brewers and the upcoming Major League Baseball season could be a very difficult one for them as well. The Brewers lost 94 games last season while also going through two managers as they are attempting to regain their form and once again become a contender in the National League Central. But the main problem with the Brewers right now is the fact that they simply don’t have that much talent which will find them fighting an uphill battle in the NL Central behind the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Brewers pitching staff struggled mightily last season as they were 11th in the National League in earned run average (4.28), and 14th in quality starts (63). And Milwaukee only had one starting pitcher (Jimmy Nelson) that won at least 10 games last season. Nelson was also the only starting pitcher for the Brewers to make at least 30 starts last season as this is a team that is desperate for more depth in their rotation. For Brewers manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson, they are hopeful that Nelson’s career is on the upswing while also being optimistic that veteran starting pitcher Matt Garza will be able to find the fountain of youth in order to help Milwaukee stay in contention this summer.
Like the Brewers pitching staff, the lineup isn’t loaded with that much talent which could make veterans such as outfielder Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy expendable on the trade market as Milwaukee looks to get younger and rebuild.
For Counsell, he can only hope that the Brewers don’t fall out of contention early in the National League Central which would make an already difficult job that much tougher.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been one of the most consistent winners in Major League Baseball. Since 1990, the Cardinals have only endured five losing seasons and only the 27 World Series Championships of the New York Yankees are more than the 11 that have been claimed by St. Louis. And even as the landscape in MLB has shifted, the Cardinals have been able to go with the flow. With the luxury tax and teams being worried about losing picks for signing top-notch free agents, along with the expanded postseason, there has been more parity in baseball as the last team to repeat as World Series Champs were the Yankees in 2000. But a few teams such as the Cards have been consistently involved in October baseball. Since 2000, the Cardinals have qualified for the playoffs 11 times with two of those trips to the postseason resulting in winning the World Series. The Cardinals have also made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons. And even after longtime Cardinals manager Tony La Russa decided to retire in 2011, St. Louis hasn’t slowed down as they’ve remained consistently good under current manager Mike Matheny. Whether it is losing players to free agency, injury, or untimely off-the field situations, the Cardinals keep on rolling along.
That has been put to the test this for the Cardinals this year as they have dealt with a rash of issues. Over the off-season, Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic. Taveras was only 22-years old and in his brief time with the Cardinals, he had flashed the potential that was going to make him a good player in St. Louis. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright was coming off a season in which he won 20 games and he was once again going to be expected to leading the Cardinals starting rotation. But Wainwright’s 2015 Major League Baseball season came to an abrupt end on April 25 when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon when he was running the bases in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The past few years have seen Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams turn into more than just a serviceable player in St. Louis. At 6’3″, 260 lbs., Adams is a burly first baseman who can hit for power and he was continuing to improve defensively as well. Adams has also developed a flair for the dramatic which was evident by his series-winning home run last October in the National League Divisional Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And with that Adams was expected to be a big part of the Cardinals lineup this season, but he suffered a torn quad muscle last month that will put him on the shelf for the majority of the regular season. And through all of that, the “Cardinal Way” has not wavered.
The Cardinals have begun this season which a record of 38-19 which is currently tops in Major League Baseball as they have a next man up philosophy. Wainwright might have been lost for the season, but it won’t slow St. Louis down as even as dominant that he can be on the mound, the Cards were still able to win a World Series Title without his services in 2011 while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals still have catcher Yadier Molina behind the plate and the six-time National League All-Star is one of the best as far as calling a game and working with a pitching staff which is evident by the fact this season that St. Louis’ team earned run average of 2.58 is tops in the NL.
The Cardinals starting rotation has been paced by starting pitchers Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Both Wacha and Martinez are 23-years of age and they are both enjoying career years. Wacha is 8-1 this season with an earned run average of 2.18 while Martinez is 6-2 with an earned run average of 2.94 as he is fresh off of giving up just a single run over 7 solid innings of work this past Friday night against the Dodgers. Martinez is playing with extra inspiration this season as he switched his jersey number from 44 to 18 in order to honor his late friend Taveres. The Cardinals also enjoy one of the best bullpens in baseball as their 24 saves this season are the head of the class in the National League with 19 of them being delivered by relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal.
The Cardinals lineup is fourth in the NL in batting average this season at .263 and they continue to get it done with guys that may not jump off of the page to the casual fan, but their workman like approach takes care of business. Infielders Jhonny Peralta, Kolten Wong, and Matt Carpenter, along with outfielder Matt Holliday are all batting over .300 this season and if needed, each player can put the Cardinals lineup on his back for a few weeks. The Cards did acquire outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves during the off-season to add depth and replace Taveres in right field. I expected Heyward to fit right into the St. Louis lineup, but he hasn’t been able to get it going yet as he is only batting .247 with 5 homers and 17 runs batted in. Heyward has made up for his bat with his stellar defense which was highlighted by him gunning down Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier at the plate in last night’s 4-2 Cardinals victory. However if Heyward is able to improve his offense this season, the Cardinals lineup will become that much more dangerous.
The next man up philosophy of the Cardinals begins in their minor league system as each player there feels that they have a chance to make the big club and when they get there, contribute. And the players that are on the big club for the Cards know that someone is being groomed in the minors that could put them out of a job. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak oversees this system and just as I wrote about the San Francisco Giants last week, St. Louis has a clubhouse full of guys that hate to lose more than they enjoy to win which is why they are always a tough out when October rolls around.
Being that Matheny spent 13 years as a Major League Baseball catcher (five with the Cardinals), he knows the game inside as well as out. And more importantly, Matheny understands what the Cardinals organization expects. There is no bad mouthing coming out of Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr. towards any of the people that he employs in the press. The Cardinals don’t have any players that believe that they are bigger than the team and if that kind of player were on the roster there, he wouldn’t be for that long. Just like losing is an attitude and infectious, so is winning. For the Cardinals sake, they continue to be on the correct side of the ledger due to the system that is in place. This is a system that doesn’t allow them to sulk when things don’t go their way and it is also a system that could carry them to another World Series Championship this October.
X-St. Louis Cardinals 92-70
Since 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the model of consistency in Major League Baseball. The Cardinals have had nine seasons in which they have won at least 90 games with a pair of World Series Championships in four appearances in the Fall Classic over that stretch. What has separated the Cards from their brethren in the National League Central over that stretch is their ability to roll with the punches by developing talent and doing things the “Cardinal Way” which will once again be the theme for them in 2015.
Tragedy struck the Cardinal family last fall when their young outfielder Oscar Tavares was killed as the result of a single-car accident in his native Dominican Republic. Tavares was just 22-years of age with a tremendously bright future in MLB which left a void for the Cards. But Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak knew that he needed to get a player to replace Tavares and he did so when he acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. After finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Heyward produced for the Braves, but he was out of place in their lineup as he was asked to be a leadoff hitter or in the second slot of the batting order which is not his cup of tea. Heyward is now in one of the most balanced and professional lineups in baseball. And with some pressure off of Heyward’s shoulders in St. Louis, he can reach his full potential now. Along with Heyward’s bat, he is a two-time NL Gold Glove Award winner that has range along with a solid throwing arm. Heyward will join a Cardinals lineup that is loaded with professional hitters such as outfielder Matt Holliday, third baseman Matt Carpenter, and outfielder Jon Jay while first baseman Matt Adams is becoming one of the big power hitting threats in the NL.The trade that brought Heyward to St. Louis would send starting pitcher Shelby Miller to the Braves and it would also see the Cards acquire relief pitcher Jordan Walden as well. Walden enjoyed a solid 2014 in the Braves bullpen where he had a 2.88 earned run average and struck out 62 batters in 50 innings pitched. And now Walden joins a bullpen and an organization with a rich and deep pitching history.
Walden comes to a Cardinals pitching staff that is looking to improve off of their team earned run average last season of 3.50 which was eighth in the National League. The Cardinals starting pitching will once again be led by Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is coming off of his second 20-win season of his MLB and you’ll hear his name in the discussion for the NL Cy Young Award as long as he remains healthy. Wainwright is 33-years old, but Cards manager Mike Matheny is a former Major League Baseball catcher and he knows how to manage a pitching staff and he’ll take care of his ace. The Cardinals starting rotation has solid arms behind Wainwright with veterans John Lackey, Lance Lynn along with youngsters in Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Cardinals relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal was second in the NL last season in saves with 45 and he should once again be one of the more dependable pitchers in the ninth inning.
The engine for the Cardinals pitching staff is their catcher Yadier Molina. There is always an ongoing debate between people as to who is the best catcher in MLB between Molina and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. But Molina is the better defender as he dares runners to test his powerful throwing arm. Molina’s offensive numbers dipped somewhat last season as he was injured and at 32-years of age he could be slowing down with his bat, but Matheny still looks at him as a manager on the field.
The Cards will begin the season attempting to survive the tide as they’ll open the season on the road against the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds respectively who would love nothing better than to put St. Louis in chase mode early on.
Cincinnati Reds 85-77
After two straight postseason appearances the Cincinnati Reds took a huge step backwards last year as they lost 86 games for the first time since 2008. In his first season as Reds manager, Bryan Price had to deal with a slew on injuries to key players and he is hopeful that Cincinnati’s title window has not closed.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto was the National League’s MVP in 2010, but injuries forced him to miss 100 games last season. Votto is vital to any success that the Reds will potentially have this season due to the fact that he is one of the better contact hitters in Major League Baseball along with being a tremendous glove man at first base. At 33-years of age, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips isn’t the player that he once was as his skills are diminishing. Like Votto, Phillips also missed a healthy amount of time last season. But injuries to the likes of Votto and Phillips allowed players such as third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco to emerge in the Reds lineup. Last season saw Frazier hit 29 home runs and emerge as one of the top third basemen in the NL while Mesoraco had a career high in home runs as well with 25. Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton was second in the NL last season in stolen bases with 56 and he could be an even bigger factor in Cincinnati’s lineup if he can improve on his on-base percentage. Hamilton stole 56 bases last season in spite of the fact that he only had a .292 on-base percentage. If Hamilton is able to improve on his on-base percentage it will be a huge boost to the Reds lineup as his speed will give the Reds power hitters better opportunities at the plate.
Offense has never been an issue for the Reds, but their pitching staff will need to improve on a team earned run average of 3.59 which was ninth in the NL last season. Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto is coming off of his first 20-win season and he and his quirky pitching delivery will need to have a big impact on Cincinnati’s starting rotation. But behind Cueto there are questions about the Reds starting pitching as the other four pitchers have been inconsistent at best. If the Reds will be able to head into the ninth inning with a lead, Price can rely on relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman who has saved 112 games over the last three years and he is also no stranger to regularly reaching 100 miles per hour on the radar gun with his fastball.
For the month of April, the Reds will play all but one of their games against the NL Central which will go a very long in determining their season.
Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78
Two consecutive trips to the playoffs have definitely created some optimism in Western Pennsylvania for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But getting back to playing baseball in October for 2015 won’t be easy. In two years as the Pirates everyday catcher, Russell Martin had a big impact on Pittsburgh”s pitching staff. With Martin as their backstop, the Pirates team earned run average was never lower than fifth in the National League. But this past winter Martin hit the free agent market and he joined the Toronto Blue Jays on a five-year, $82 million contract. Martin is a native of Toronto and that was the icing on the cake for him. For Pirates general manager Neal Huntington he had to replace Martin which he did by trading for another former New York Yankees catcher in Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli will split time behind the plate Chris Stewart as the two of them will have their hands full as far replacing Martin and it will tough for both of them to replicate Martin’s overall production.
Cervelli and Stewart will be working with a Pirates pitching staff that will have a blend of youth and experience. Pirates starting pitchers Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett are veteran pitchers that possess rubber arms while Pittsburgh is hopeful that youngster Gerrit Cole will be able to put it all together this season.
The Pirates scored the fourth most runs in the NL last season with outfielder Andrew McCutchen being their catalyst. McCutchen won the NL MVP Award in 2013 and he’ll once again be in the running for it in 2015 as he is one of the best five-tool players in Major League Baseball. Huntington and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle were happy with the emergence of third baseman Josh Harrison in the lineup along with first baseman Pedro Alvarez as he is once again going to be counted on to provide some protection for McCutchen in the Pirates lineup. The Pirates had nine players hit at least 10 homers last season with McCutchen leading the way with 25 and the group effort will be needed again if the Pirates are going to be a playoff contender this season.
The Pirates do have some tremendous young talent on their team, but the loss of Martin behind the plate will be tough for them to overcome.
Chicago Cubs 79-83
The Chicago Cubs are set to enter their fourth season with Theo Epstein as their president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as their general manager. But unlike the previous three seasons there is some more optimism for the North Siders. Former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has taken over as the skipper for the Cubs and he has brought his quirky style of managing to the Windy City with him. In nine seasons as the Rays manager, Maddon had six winning campaigns while leading Tampa to four postseason appearances which included a pair of American League East Titles and their only World Series appearance in franchise history. Now Maddon has been charged with doing the impossible which is molding this young Cubs roster into contenders that can ultimately win the franchise’s first World Series Championship since 1908.
Last season the Cubs team earned run average of 3.91 was 13th in the National League which was something that Epstein and Hoyer needed to remedy. Epstein is hopeful that he solved this problem as he lured a familiar face to Chicago. Prior to joining the Cubs, Epstein worked in the front office of the Boston Red Sox and in his time there he watched starting pitcher Jon Lester blossom into one of the best left-handed pitchers in Major League Baseball. The Red Sox traded Lester to the Oakland Athletics last summer as he was set to become a free agent this winter. The Red Sox wanted to bring Lester back to Boston, but they were unwilling to get into a bidding war with the Cubs who offered Lester $155 million over six years. What Lester brings to the Cubs is a career record of 116-67 with a 3.58 earned run average. In six of the last seven seasons Lester has thrown at least 200 innings and he’ll be a guy that Maddon will count on to be the ace of his pitching staff.
Behind Lester, the Cubs have youngsters in their starting rotations in Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, and Jason Hammel that will need to be ready for the big time if the Cubs are going to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.
The Cubs are also high on their young lineup led by first baseman Anthony Rizzo who emerged as a power-hitter last season. Rizzo has tremendous power and he has the potential to hit 40 home runs this season. It seems like Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been around forever, but he is only 24-years old and he will need to become more consistent defensively while making sure that he gets on base ahead of Rizzo. The Cubs front office is high on outfielder Jorge Soler and second baseman Junior Baez as they feel that they have their core in place that will allow them to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
Wrigley Field has been the home of the Chicago Cubs since 1914 and it is dire need of a renovation. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is full steam ahead with his plan to renovate the facility and thus the left field bleachers there will not be ready when the season starts. The Cubs will have to do without the crazies in left field to start the season, but everyone in the Windy City believes in what Epstein, Hoyer, and Maddon are selling to them as far as the direction of the team.
Milwaukee Brewers 81-81
Since winning the National League Central in 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers have been an up and down team. And 2015 won’t be any easier for the Brewers who’ll be swimming upstream in an improved division. Ron Roenicke is set to embark on his fifth season as the Brewers manager and he has plenty of question marks surrounding his club.
The life of Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun has not been the same since he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs in 2011. Braun was the NL MVP in 2011, but since being outed for PED’s he has dealt with his fair share of public scrutiny and injuries as you simply don’t know how he’ll perform in 2015. In Braun’s absence last season outfielder Carlos Gomez led the team in home runs (23) and he is emerging as one of the better center fielders in Major League Baseball. At 36-years of age, Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez is not the player that he once was and he has announced that this will be his swan song while Roenicke is hopeful that shortstop Jean Segura is ready to have a bounce back season.
With the likes of pitchers Wliy Peralta, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza in the Brewers starting rotation, they will need to pick up the slack for Yovanni Gallardo who was traded to the Texas Rangers this off-season. Roenicke has options in his bullpen as he can turn to either Jonathan Broxton or Francisco Rodriguez to close out ballgames. Broxton hasn’t been a closer since 2012 when he was with the Kansas City Royals. But 6’4″, 295 lbs., Broxton’s presence alone of the mound can intimidate hitters while Rodriguez did save 44 games for the Brewers last season.
The Brewers will be a gritty team in 2015, but it will not be enough for them to hang around in the playoff race.
The St. Louis Cardinals came into existence in 1882 as the St. Louis Brown Stockings and their team history is one of the best and deepest in all of professional sports. The Cardinals 11 World Series Championships are the second most in Major League Baseball history. The Cardinals have a litany of Baseball Hall of Famers that includes Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith. Since 2000, the Cardinals have only had one losing season with two World Series Championships in four appearances in the Fall Classic over that stretch. After winning the World Series in 2011, the Cardinals fell one game short of making the Fall Classic in 2012. The Cardinals made the World Series last year, but they were knocked off there by the Boston Red Sox in six games. The Cardinals came into this season expecting to once again be a playoff contender, but for the most part things have been a little different.
Since the start of the MLB season, the Milwaukee Brewers have been the team to beat in the National League Central as they have held down the top spot. A month ago the Brewers had a 5.5 game lead over the Cardinals in the division. But now the Brewers are tied with the Cardinals for first place in the division. The Cards have rallied to catch the Brewers in spite of the fact that they are currently without catcher Yadier Molina who is sidelined with ligament damage in his thumb. Molina is a six-time National League All-Star and he has also won seven Gold Glove Awards for his prowess behind the plate. Without a doubt Molina is the heart and soul of the Cardinals, but the Cardinals have a never-say-die attitude along with the next man up mentality as each player knows that he must be up for the challenge. This is the same mentality that the Cardinals used in 2006 when they won the World Series.
In 2004 and 2005, the Cardinals won 100-plus games in both seasons, but they were unable to win it all. The Cardinals only went 83-78 in 2006 and they were able to win the World Series. After winning the World Series in 2011, the Cardinals saw longtime first baseman Albert Pujols leave via free agency to join the Los Angeles Angels. In two years without Pujols, the Cardinals have two postseason appearances to their credit. Now the current Cardinals team is not littered with superstars, but with a bunch of guys that do everything very well.
Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams is in his third season and in each year he has improved. Adams is currently second in the NL in batting average (.323) while he also has 12 homers and 43 runs batted in. At 34-years of age Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday is not the power threat that he once was, but he still leads the club in runs batted in with 50 and he has a .376 on-base percentage. Last year as a member of the Detroit Tigers, shortstop Jhonny Peralta was suspended by Major League Baseball for 50 games due to his role in the Biogenesis scandal. The Cards signed Peralta last winter to a four-year deal worth $53 million and he is currently leading the team in home runs with 14.
In the past few years the Cardinals pitching rotation has been defined by starting pitcher Adam Wainwright. Since 2009, Wainwright has led the NL in wins on two occasions and his 12 victories this season are leading the Senior Circuit. Wainwright is also leading the National League in earned run average this season at 1.83. But aside from Wainwright, starting pitcher Lance Lynn has emerged in the Cardinals rotation. In 2012, Lynn was fourth in the NL in wins with 18. So far this season Lynn is 11-6 and he has a decent shot of winning 18 games if not more this season. If Lynn does win 18 or more games in 2014 it should mark the Cards once again winning the NL Central.
Under manager Mike Matheny, the Cardinals simply do not beat themselves. The season the Cardinals have only committed 47 errors which is the second fewest in the National League and their pitching staff has only given up 20 unearned runs.
In their next eight games the Cardinals do not play a team that currently has a winning record as they have two home games with the Tampa Bay Rays before traveling to take on the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres respectively.The Cardinals are anticipating getting Molina back from the disabled list at some point which will be a tremendous shot in the arm for this club. In spring training I projected the Cardinals to win the 2014 World Series and come October, this battled test club may still emerge when the smoke clears.